The scoreline doesn’t always tell the whole story. For the footballers of Venezuela's Atlético Sport Club, a debut appearance at one of South America’s most prestigious women’s soccer tournaments was just the beginning.
A quick glance at the results will tell you that Atlético lost all three of their games in the group stage at the Copa Libertadores Femenina in Buenos Aires in March, scoring just a single goal in total. What it won’t tell you is the story behind the struggle; the sacrifices that have been made and the constant determination to overcome barriers that is required just to make it onto the field in the first place.
For women football players in Venezuela, salaries are rare. Water in the showers is deemed a luxury; players often have to bring a bottle from home to wash themselves after a match.
"The fight of the female players is for equality, to get more attention, just as men's football gets,” midfielder Yéssica Rodríguez, 28, said. “If we compete at the same level, then we have nothing to envy. We are warrior women, we have strength and we have shown it. We are left with no choice but to keep fighting.”
Last March, the president of CONMEBOL, the governing body for soccer in South America, said that “women’s football has no ceiling.” For this group of Venezuelan players, smashing glass ceilings has been an almost weekly experience.
"My fight has been hard work and sacrifice,” said Emperatriz García, a 22-year-old defender, who was voted best player of the match in Atlético’s final game, despite a heavy defeat to River Plate. A few weeks later, she was selected for the national squad to compete in the Basque Country International Women’s Cup in Spain in early April.
García has had to face more hurdles than most. She had to play several matches in Venezuela’s domestic championship in 2019, including the final, with a serious knee injury. Unable to afford surgery, she undertook her own rehabilitation programme. “I really don’t want to talk about my knee now,” she says.
Atlético’s footballers didn’t receive salaries while training for the Copa Libertadores. “Nor did we get travel allowances or bonuses for qualifying for the tournament,” said midfielder Irlanda Santoro. There’s no health insurance either.
They are professional footballers. But, as García puts it, “the word ‘professional’ is not relevant in women’s football.” Clubs “normally do not fully comply with contracts, and [the money involved] can’t compare with the big sums of men’s football. My last contract was in 2019 and I can’t even remember how much I was paid,” she said.
García is not alone in her experiences. Take María Gabriela Valecillos, a talented 27-year-old midfielder and winner of the national championship for three years in a row, including in 2020 with Atlético SC.
Valecillos gets up every day at 5.30am to train. She is disciplined and focused, like any elite athlete. But when she is not training, she works on her family’s farm in Trujillo, in the Venezuelan Andes, picking black beans, corn and strawberries.
In 2020, Atlético asked her and three other players from the countryside to move to the capital, Caracas, to train for the Libertadores, a tournament she had played in twice before.
When the pandemic struck and the tournament was postponed, Valecillos was stuck. “Everything is actually a sacrifice, like not having your family around,” she said. “But this is what I like and I am happy doing it. I love football. I have learned a lot; not everyone goes to the Copa Libertadores,” she said.
When training sessions restarted earlier this year, Valecillos and her three teammates returned to the capital, to live in a house rented by the club in a poor neighbourhood in western Caracas.
Supported by the families of fellow players who provided food and water, Valecillos and her teammates restarted their preparations for the tournament. Players relied on lifts from family members to get to training sessions, to avoid walking long distances or taking unreliable public transport.
While making it to training was difficult enough, getting to an international tournament in Argentina during a global pandemic brought further challenges. A week before leaving for Buenos Aires, Valecillos and three other players in the starting line-up tested positive for COVID-19 and were not allowed to travel.
Instead of leaving for the tournament with their strongest possible team, Atlético were forced to take three replacement players. The journey to the Argentine capital took nearly three days: a 13-hour bus ride to Cúcuta in Colombia, followed by a flight with a stopover in Bogotá and several delays.
By the time Atlético took to the field in their opening game of the tournament, their players had already broken through one glass ceiling. A 4-0 loss to Independiente de Santa Fe (from Colombia) was followed by two more defeats: 2-1 against Sol de América (Paraguay) and 3-0 against River Plate (Argentina).
Midfielder Santoro says that female footballers in Venezuela “have raised our voices, reached international tournaments, won at home and even abroad, but we’re still not recognised”.
Although she’s frustrated by the lack of resources given to women’s soccer in Venezuela and sad at having to miss the tournament after contracting COVID, Valecillos remains positive. Her dream of playing professional football in Spain remains within her grasp.
“This is about learning and it has made me think about many things and praise every moment,” she said of the whole experience. “The dreams are still there; you can’t bow your head, you keep moving forward.”
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